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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing info@wida.us with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.

Mershon West Viscusie: Featured Educator

December 2015

Mershon West Viscusie in an ESL Technology teacher in Charlotte, NC where she supports ELL students and their educators by tapping into her knowledge of language development, theater, arts and technology.

photo of Mershon West Viscusie
Mershon West Viscusie

Q. Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

MWV: I have teaching for 20 years in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, NC. I have been in my current position as an ESL Technology Resource teacher for two years now. Prior to that, I was an ESL classroom teacher for eight years and before that a theater teacher.

Q. What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

MWV: We have around 17,000 ELL students in our district. It is a very urban district with 80% or more of the schools qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. We have some schools that have as many as 500 ELL students. Our district has 168 schools and about 300 ESL teachers. We have bilingual schools and newcomer schools. We have a refugee resettlement in our area and also many unaccompanied minors. So we have every language you can think of. Our entire district has to be aware of our cultural context and we have to work together. And our teachers are just as diverse as our students.

Q. Can you tell me about the work of your current position and the work you do to support teachers working with ELLs?

MWV: I am part of the team of three ESL technology resource teachers. These are pretty unique positions and we are lucky to have Title 3 funds allocated for them, along with the explicit specification that they must be held by ESL teachers. So we are uniquely positioned to bring the ESL filter while keeping the classroom work at the heart. Our team has been at the forefront in trying to bring the best technology to the students who are in most need of access to these tools.

I love to inspire the students and teachers to use technology to create fun, engaging, project-based activities. We aren't isolating a student by a device, but rather we are using the device to create or support a project. We are really trying to make a cultural shift in the investment in and commitment to in technology. And with my amazing team, William King, Kristen Baker, and Alyssa Arrowsmith, we are really seeing improvements.

We have been working with a number of educators on how to effectively incorporate iPads and apps into their teaching. I have been able to scaffold the teachers' learning of how to incorporate the technology. I assure them that they don't need to have mastered an app or program before they try it with their students. We can learn together and "fail forward." Teachers need to feel comfortable about taking risks, just as we ask students to do. I've learned that if you know of an app that you want to use, put a timer on, and have the kids explore it, then come back and report what they have learned. They are fearless in this way! So I let the kids help me.

We are really trying to build a relationship between the cohort of teachers from last year and this year to build our capacity and so that they can mentor each other. To support this goal, I have started videotaping the conversations I have with teachers, because, especially when learning with and about technology, that visual piece is so important. And when I record it, I can put it on YouTube (https://m.youtube.com/my_videos) and the teacher I am working with can go back and watch what we did and revisit the lesson or conversation. Also, all the teachers I work with know I do this and know about my YouTube channel, so they can go watch and learn from the videos of other teachers in the cohort. It can be very validating for a teacher to see other teachers asking similar questions, or see what this looks like in another classroom.

I really try to help the teachers I work with understand that I accept wherever they are in their own learning. This helps them feel safer to take some risks and grow. It is an incredibly meaningful and wonderful position I have. I love it!

Q. How have you been able to incorporate your background in theater and arts in the classroom to support ELLs?

MWV: For me teaching theater has perfectly equipped me for ESL teaching. It is about communication and language. Theater is really an art form of language. A lot of the digital creation we are doing now with technology has theatrical elements in the way that kids are creating their own content. Artwork and creation is a big part of investing in the work we do together with students, and a way to really engage them with the language through experiences.

Here's an example: I was working with a group of second graders who were reading an excerpt from the book Sarah, Plain and Tall. This is a story about a little girl whose mother died, and she has to take on the role of being the mother within her family. Taking on responsibility like this is a common experience for many of our ELLs. We read an except about two children talking about mama. This can be a very sad or deep conversation, and it requires a lot of abstract thinking, such as making an inference, which can be challenging for second graders. I felt the best way to help these students would be by role playing the characters using iPads. First we had to write a script. To make this manageable, we broke the text into chunks and students got into partners. Each partnership was given four sentences. Then we had 10 students that played Sarah and another 10 that played the brother. We had them sit in front of the camera, in the same place if they were acting out the same character. So each student had a chance to read a small part for their character, but when you looked at the video after we edited it using the imovie app, the whole scene played out. Then we projected the scene on a whiteboard in the classroom as a complete piece. Then we could pause the video and draw a think bubble asking students "What do you think this character is thinking right now?" So we would work on writing and understanding how to make inferences this way. This allowed students the opportunity to practice language in the context of the novel and arrive at an understanding of what the characters are saying. For example, in one scene the dad comes home and swings the little girl around, and I asked, "What kind of dad do you think he is?" The students didn't understand what I was asking, so I went out of the class, came back in and acted out the scene. Then I asked the question again. Now students were able to understand the text and make inferences about the characters. We got to that deep level thinking and practiced the language of the novel while conversing with one another in a way that they could engage with the content and language.

Q. What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?

MWV: I feel the spirit of America lives inside our immigrant students. The passion that they bring is such a strength. They are so motivated and have such vulnerability--this is the birthplace of innovation. They are fearless! They are coming into an environment in which they don't always have the emotional support of their families. These kids are navigating of lot of situations by themselves. And yet still, my ELL students have a lot of joy and lightness in their spirit. They are risk-takers in their learning, and early adopters of new ideas. They are also very willing to collaborate. They want to bring others along and have learned that they often gain more from helping out others. Our country needs these children to show us how to collaborate and to care about each other.

In her interview, Mershon expressed how getting to see inside other educator's classrooms can be a valuable experience. Even when the "visits" are via video. Mershon shared several links to videos of educators she works with in hopes that our readers will enjoy the opportunity to see the wonderful work her district is doing and maybe even get inspired to create their own!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCI0cKKy6dwbs1bjFrJdku2Q/videos

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOTgtPyL5YRxXerR2CtPOiw/videos

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoHP_BQOoaJlB7DHq6lYEfQ